In 2018, Goldfield Productions and North Herts Music School created a groundbreaking outreach project enabling 50 young people to tell stories in their own way though words, music and performance. The result was HIGHBURY WHISPERS, a 60 minute site-specific musical theatre piece entirely composed, written, directed, designed, performed, produced and promoted by children aged 11-16 from local schools over a 7 month period.
Lead by Goldfield creative producer Kate Romano and Head of North Herts Music School Nicky Footer, Highbury Whispers explores the history of the Victorian Highbury House through song, music, words and dance. Seven rooms and two outside spaces were transformed with lighting, sets and props into a site-specific sensory theatrical set utilising the original Victorian architecture. Audiences promenaded through the rooms, met by costumed actors, ensembles, and percussion groups as an original and imaginative World War 1 love story unfolded.
Whispers was designed as a framework to offer outstanding inspirational and educational experiences to a diverse group of young people drawn from NHMS (Saturday Morning Music School & established ensembles) and local schools including The Priory School, Hitchin Girls School, Hitchin Boys School and Knights Templar School. Between May – November 2018, the young team received mentoring, training and guidance from outstanding industry specialists enabling them create and deliver Highbury Whispers. Six public performances were given on 9th and 10th of November with a private preview (dress rehearsal) on 8th November.
Highbury Whispers was developed as part of the Hansel & Gretel storytelling outreach programme (March-November 2018) Through an extensive range of activities developed with parters, Storytelling was used as a bridge-building concept and a creative starting point, giving voice to young people to tell stories in their own way. Through workshops and events we empowered young people through decision making, by putting them at the heart of the creative process and enabling them to produce vibrant and innovative work.
Highbury Whispers is ‘site-specific’: in other words, the show has grown from the rooms, history, architecture and acoustics of Highbury House. The house IS the theatre and we have dressed it accordingly, attempting to bring back some of the splendor, intimacy and warmth of this lovely building whilst making many references to its contemporary use as a school. Scenes take place around the house and outside, using the spaces to draw audiences deep into the story.
We like to call our production ‘historically aware’ or ‘historically influenced’. The real history of Highbury House is tied up with the beginnings of the Rural Music Service; it covers the period of two world wars and the suffragette movement. We have taken fragments of history and sprinkled them liberally around our story, woven together with a great deal of imagination. The real life Frederick Seebohm was a banker and historian who funded and supported much of the early Rural Music Service in North Herts. His wife was called Mary. In our story they have a daughter – Charlotte Seebohm – but the real Frederick and Mary had a son called Hugh (a director for Barclays bank) who was the first treasurer of the Rural Music Service. Frederick did actually not live at Highbury House – he lived in a grand house called The Hermitage (86a) on Hermitage Road. The Rural Music School were offered a small room in this house to use as an office (c. 1929)
The characters Harriet Ibberson and Charlotte Seebohm are inspired by Mary Ibberson (a good pianist) and Edith Grubb (a professional cellist) who founded the Rural Music Service in the late 1920s and 1930s. Mary Ibberson was born c. 1880 and her family settled in Letchworth in 1913. Edith, Mary and friends played chamber music together and gave monthly concerts. A ‘varied music department’ developed from these early days with ‘a choir, a string orchestra, country dancing and courses in musical appreciation’. The students formed a club and organised trips to see concerts in London. Hugely ambitious, incredibly capable and dedicated, they put on an opera (Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas) in the St Christopher Theatre in Letchworth. They also started to take their classes out in to the villages (Weston was the first) and the Hertfordshire Rural Music School grew from this. It was founded in order to be able to deliver music lesson to everyone who wanted them in the area.
The schoolgirl character Edith Cross is based on the real life ‘school girl suffragette’ Ellen Cross. Ellen was born in 1892 and met Emily Davison as a young girl, altering the course of her life. In Highbury Whispers, her (fictitious) daughter Edith enters the narrative in scene 5 (1935), telling the story of her mother (Ellen) who has become a role model for the boarding school girls. We are very grateful to the North Hertfordshire Museum for sharing this historical ‘real life’ story with us.
Highbury House was actually used as a boarding school from 1952-59 but to our knowledge there have been no fires ….or ghosts…..
What did our young people think?
‘It was a real community – completely made by us!’
‘We had complete freedom with the project and nothing felt impossible’
‘People trusted me to bring my ideas to life’
‘Because I was working with other people and after a while I realised we all have our opinions so why not say them? It pushed me to express myself because it wouldn’t be worth it if I didn’t.’
‘It was such a supporting and creatively challenging project and allowed many to feel free to be themselves and develop confidence in their own ability’.
‘I was proud to see the look on the audiences faces as they didn’t think that a production made by children could be as professional as it was’
‘I enjoyed working with adults as well as children. I liked making friends with people across Hertfordshire. I was very proud of the show and loved how professional it felt’.
‘Whispers is like nothing I have ever done before. It gave me such a unique opportunity in which the cast and mentors were brimming with support and enthusiasm. I have made new friends, which was a really unexpected outcome for me and was not one of my aims when joining the project. I would change nothing about it and had an absolute whale of a time’.
‘I loved it all! Can’t fault anything at all! Even though there were challenges but they were what made it more fun and made us more proud of the final show’
‘Whispers has given me more of an idea how things work in the performing industry and made me want to do it even more than I did originally’
‘Whispers has made me believe in myself more and really made me want to go for my dream and achieve a career in the performing arts’
‘Before Whispers, I didn’t think I had the talent in me for performing! Now I really want to do drama for GCSEs’
‘My confidence had definitely improved, also I can now work better in groups’
‘Whispers has made me want to work harder and continue with drama/music etc And given me a few ideas for future careers’
A final note from Kate Romano, Artistic Director, Goldfield Productions
Young people have brilliant imaginations. They make up stories, music and dance. They design unexpected, beautiful and functional things. They are resourceful and they find surprising and creative solutions to problems. They can work alone and as teams and they approach all this with a wonderful spontaneous sense of play and freedom.
Highbury Whispers was a ground-breaking pilot project entirely founded upon the belief in the capabilities and creativity of young people. Devised by Goldfield Productions and the North Herts Music School, we thought..…what if we gave young people a space, support and a framework? Could a large group of children, coming together for the first time, create a piece of musical theatre from scratch in six months? Well, they could and they did.
When we first met in May 2018, all we had was a building (Highbury House). There was no script, no songs, no cast, no story, no costumes. Over a series of workshops (‘How does a production company work?’) our young people have discovered the roles that they wanted to take on and used their imagination, skills, talent and resourcefulness to create a new musical that – truthfully – exceeded all our expectations.
Some of our young people stepped out of their comfort zones from the start, attracted to the project by the chance to try something new. Others took time to develop existing skills in different ways. Almost everyone has a multiple role (often ‘on stage’ and back-stage too). Its been particularly striking how many have grown into roles they did not originally consider, willingly stepping up, saying ‘I can do that’.
They have been supported by a group of outstanding industry mentors who have come into the project at various points and shared what they know- never dictating, but working alongside the young team and showing them how professionals go about creating a show. Our mentors include international opera and theatre director Caroline Clegg, leading dance practitioner Jane Turner, Rachel Willis from Let’s Go Sewing, lighting expert Georgie Ekers, percussionist Caz Wolfson, make up from Dimitra Zenetzi and set design from Andy Lawrence (Theatre of Widdershins). We are very grateful to Rachel Thomas, Rowena Thompson and Bridget Caldecote for additional music coaching.
Best of all, these young people worked as a huge cohesive team. They are a supportive, hard-working, quick-thinking, kind and thoughtful community and its impossible to express just how much we have enjoyed working with them. All the mentors, Nicky Footer and I are proud of every single one of them and the essential parts they have played in bringing Highbury Whispers to life. They have demonstrated beyond doubt that what young people need to produce outstanding creative work is support, time, encouragement and a ‘playground’ in which to let their imaginations run free – they will do the rest.
Thank you to…
The project could not have taken place without the invaluable support of Nick Denham (Head of Participation and Inclusion officer for Hertfordshire Music Service), Liam Amner and Bethany Barnett-Sanders (North Herts Music School administrator)
THANK YOU to…
Hitchin Girls’ School – for allowing us to transform beautiful Highbury House into a theatre!
North Herts Music School Staff – for your patience and for allowing our project to take place around your teaching work
Charley Gaidoni (Gaidoni Films) – for capturing the project in progress and for wonderful photographs and video footage
Recover ‘up-cycling Furniture and Lives’ www.recoverteam.co.uk
Our larger set items are on hire from Recover, a vibrant upcycling social enterprise based in Welwyn who create pathways into volunteering and work. At its heart is a commitment to sustainability by upcycling old unwanted furniture or working with donated or reclaimed local materials. RECOVER offers vulnerable adults new fulfillment and purpose.
Mackay’s Antiques & Furniture Barn, Letchworth
Lets Go Sewing – for input, expertise, advice and loan of sewing machines
North Herts Museum – for historical guidance and hosting a pop-up performance of 2 scenes from Whispers on Saturday 3rd November
Hitchin Library – for hosting a pop-up performance of 2 scenes from Whispers on Saturday 3rd November
Knights Templar School – for the loan of three huge theatre flats
We are extremely grateful for additional funding support from:
Friends of North Herts Music School
Anna Ohtani Fund
Hertfordshire Music Service (Hertfordshire County Council)
Arts Council North Herts
What a brilliant production – Incredible performance from everyone involved on & off stage, bringing to life Highbury House & its memories. Poignant, moving, fitting WW1 tribute and such talent from the kids who created the whole thing.Samantha Martin, Arts Council England
Thank you for the most interesting and professional performance. The children have worked so hard and deserve great praise; hope to see another performance in the future.Cllr Jean Green, Vice Chair North Herts District Council
Very moving, the house made a brilliant backdrop to your fantastic tale.Mayor of Stevenage
What a fabulous show; the powerful feelings shown by the students passed on to us – very emotive! It’s not fair to pick anyone out because all the students were excellent – wow!Andrew Bullen
What a show that was! I cried and laughed, my heart was full of joy! An incredible experience, thank you, you deserve a big round of applause! In absolute awe of this beautiful company and what I’ve witnessed today!audience member
An absolutely incredible show. Fabulous music, storytelling and performances. A massive well done to the cast, crew and a huge thanks to everyone involved.audience member
Wow. Phenomenal production of #HighburyWhispers. Great writing, acting, singing, musicianship, lighting, props, logistics etc. by a wonderful youth team, mere Twitter words can’t do it justice. Well done to all involved, amazingaudience member
Highbury Whispers was kindly supported by the Friends of the North Herts Music School and is a collaboration between North Herts Music School and Goldfield Productions.
Kate Romano – project producer, writing & composition
Goldfield Productions Artistic Director Kate Romano is also a renowned clarinettist, producer and fundraiser and previously held a senior academic role at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years. She has a doctorate in composition and is a writer for BBC Orchestras and Proms. She has written and narrated 150 short stories for BBC Radio 3 and five children’s productions. kateromano.co.uk / goldfieldensemble.co.uk
Nicky Footer – project co-producer, social media, costumes
Nicky Footer has been Head of North Herts Music School since 2010 and has worked in Music Education for 29 years with both Primary and Secondary students. She is passionate about making a musical difference to young people and writes for the children she teaches; three of her songs are published with Boosey & Hawkes’ Singing Sherlock 5.
Caroline Clegg – director
Caroline is an international theatre and opera director working with WNO Opera North and her own company Feelgood Theatre Productions. She has a passion for site specific work, cats and riding her Triumph Bonneville motorbike.
Jane Turner – choreography
Jane Turner is a leading dance practitioner based in Hertfordshire. Her next project after Highbury Whispers is leading a cabaret dance project into a Posh Club for the over 60s in with London students towards developing a community dance project North Hertfordshire. www.janeturner.net
Rachel Willis – costumes
Rachel’s years of sewing expertise were invaluable in helping the cast create the costumes for Highbury Whispers. Rachel runs sewing classes and hosts day-long social sewing retreats as co-founder of Let’s Go Sewing. For more details, go to www.letsgosewing.co.uk or find Rachel on Facebook at www.facebook.com/letsgosewing/
Georgie Ekers – lighting
Georgie has worked extensively in theatre, dance and opera, most recently as Lighting Associate for Complicite’s ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ and Irish National Opera’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’. She has toured worldwide with many productions for Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre and was head of lighting for Auckland International Festival, Wexford Festival Opera and Opera Ireland for many years.
Caz Wolfson – percussion
Caz is a percussionist, passionate music educator and the Head of Potters Bar Music Centre (part of Herts Music Service). She constantly wonders what everyday objects would sound like if you hit them with a really big stick, and has thoroughly enjoyed introducing the Whispers musicians to the joys of kitchen percussion!
Andy Lawrence – set design
Andy is a former BBC prop and costume maker who set up the highly successful Theatre Of Widdershins which tours the UK combining puppetry, storytelling and music for younger audiences. www.widdershins.co.uk